The Shed is a temporary venue at London’s National Theatre and has 225 seats; from April 2013 the venue has hosted some of the Theatre’s most exciting new artists in an intimate setting. Haworth Tompkins designed The Shed as a monolithic red box, entirely clad with rough-sawn timber boards. Reclaimed chairs provide all of the seating inside the building, while recycled materials were used for all of the cladding and surfaces. The auditorium will remain in place for a year, temporarily replacing the Cottesloe Theatre room while it undergoes a renovation.
The current production is Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World Of Extreme Happiness (till the 26th October). Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, born in the U.S. to an Irish-American father and a Taiwanese mother, has a complex and growing body of work that tackles some very difficult themes, including loss, violence, and conflict both between cultures and within the family. The World Of Extreme Happiness looks at such issues and tells the story of Sunny (played by Harry Potter star Katie Leung) who is born the fifth unwanted girl to a peasant family; her father (Daniel York) is more loving towards his racing pigeons, a female child being “a thing” to be thrown in the slop bucket. Sunny leaves behind her family and her home in rural China for the promise of a job in a factory and a new life.
The bright neon lights of Shenzhen soon fade and Sunny is left mopping factory floors, though she wants more – much more. But her hunger for self-improvement leaves her trapped in the machine of progress as she is forced to face the human cost of wealth, power, fame and honour. Everyone seems to have a mantra, or a power plan, or backlog of disappointment; and your fate is sealed by the family you come from; hard luck if you’re a woman.
Katie Leung plays Sunny as a sparky young woman who only wants the best in life and her hopes for a better life are raised by self-help, motivational classes – the set lights up in neon and the audience interact with Mr Destiny (Chris Lew Kum Hoi) who makes Sunny and her new City friend (Vera Cook) “realise your destiny”. Sunny gets her promotion offering “favours” rather than be given the promotion she rightly deserves; this is the climax to the first half where there is a source of amusement to the story with clever dialogue and brilliant acting by the cast of six. It feels as though the play was two different tales with a humorous side and then the dark twists and turns in the second half.
The second part sees Sunny return home to exact revenge on her father, before seeing off a supposed chum in a competition to be the country-girl-done-good speechmaker at the documentary premiere for the factory she works at, where the poor workers have committed suicide due to the pressures of their life and how they do not fit into the City life. Peasants will always be looked down at in the rich world of the City. During the speech in The Great Hall she tells the truth about what life is like for rural Chinese in the big city where capitalism is red in tooth and claw. The play finishes with devastating consequences for Sunny after speaking the truth about the migrant workers.
The cast of six play various roles and it took me a while to realise that Chris Lew Kum Hoi, Vera Cook, Juni Inocian, Daniel York and Sarah Lam were playing different charcters! The acting is superb and I would recommend you see this powerful production in The Shed as a few days later I am still thinking how lucky I am.
Extreme Happiness – if not exactly producing that feeling – is largely more enjoyable than it might sound, even as it ultimately reaches deeply disturbing conclusions. There is certainly nothing politely diplomatic about Frabces Ya-Chu Cowhig’s play which presents China as a country in which a repressive government is combined with the worst excesses of capitalism.
As the play says: ‘There are only two roads to walk down. You can see the truth – and always be in pain. Or we can look away and be rich. And safe. And happy.’ When you leave The Shed you feel very lucky to be able to have the freedom of free speech and no matter what sex, creed or wealth you will be looking forward to another day in your life as life is sunny for us.
Tickets are avaliable at box office online or via phone: 0207 7452 3244
The Shed (At The National Theatre)
London, SE1 9PX